Stars and shambles: Ken Holland’s job rebuilding the Oilers has just begun

To prepare you for the opening of NHL training camps in mid-September, CBC Sports will do a deep dive on each of the seven Canadian-based clubs every Thursday. Today, we examine the Edmonton Oilers.

If Peter Chiarelli can make a bad situation worse in 45 months, new general manager Ken Holland needs time to build the Oilers into a contender.

Oilers owner Darryl Katz and CEO Bob Nicholson lured the 63-year-old Holland out of his cushy new advisory role with the Detroit Red Wings with a handsome five-year, $25-million US contract on May 7.

Holland was well aware of the mess he inherited. There isn’t much of a supporting cast around Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. When Holland took over:

  • The blue line was thin on talent and veteran leaders.
  • His starting goalie was Mikko Koskinen, a 31-year-old Finn who has two IIHF World Championship silver medals in his CV but only 55 NHL games of experience. Chiarelli’s last move as GM in Edmonton was to ink Koskinen to a pricey three-year, $4.5-million a season extension last January.
  • There was no head coach in place. The new bench boss will be Nugent-Hopkins’ eighth coach in nine seasons. RNH is the longest-serving player with the Oilers.
  • The fickle fan base had witnessed only one visit to the playoffs since the city’s heart was broken in Game 7 of the 2005-06 Stanley Cup final against the Carolina Hurricanes.

So what has Holland done in his three months at the helm? He has brought in Dave Tippett, 57, as head coach.

This is Tippett’s third stop in the NHL. His teams in Dallas and Arizona made the playoffs in eight of his first nine seasons, advancing to the conference final with the Stars in 2007-08 and the Coyotes in 2011-12.

But he missed the playoffs with the cash-strapped Coyotes in his final five seasons in the desert and hasn’t coached a game in the NHL since the end of the 2016-17 regular season.

Ken Holland, left, introduces new head coach Dave Tippett in May. Tippett missed the playoffs in each of his last five years leading the Arizona Coyotes before his dismissal in 2017. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Holland reunited Tippett with his former Coyotes goalie Mike Smith and ex-Stars sniper James Neal. The 37-year-old Smith was signed as an unrestricted free agent to push Koskinen in net. Smith has plenty to prove after his disappointing performance in the Calgary Flames’ first-round, five-game exit at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche last April.

Neal was a curious move. He was acquired in a trade with the Flames that sent Milan Lucic the other way. Tippett had Neal in his rookie year with the Dallas Stars when he scored an impressive 24 goals.

Neal scored at least 20 goals in his first 10 seasons. But last year, he checked in with only seven goals in 63 games, one better than Lucic’s six in 79 games with the Oilers. It will be interesting to see if either veteran left wing regains his offensive touch in his new setting.

Question marks litter blue line

Holland drafted defenceman Philip Broberg eighth overall, but he will remain in Sweden next season. He also re-signed free-agent forward Alex Chiasson, who scored 22 times for the Oilers last year, and added former Vancouver Canucks forward Markus Granlund, 26, for the third line.

The new GM also bought out veteran defenceman Andrej Sekera, who has since signed a one-year, $1.5-million contract with Dallas. Sekera’s departure will leave Holland and Tippett with an unproven defence.

The incumbents are Darnell Nurse, Oskar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Matt Benning with Evan Bouchard, William Lagesson, Joel Persson, Ethan Bear, Dmitri Samorukov and Caleb Jones competing for the sixth and seventh spot on the blue line.

Darnell Nurse must step into a bigger role on the Oilers’ blue-line with the departure of veteran Andrej Sekera. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Whether the Oilers can make strides will depend on the development of the defence. And whether the defensive-minded Tippett, his assistants Jim Playfair, Glen Gulutzan and Brian Wiseman, can coax their players to perform at a consistent level.

Can Neal regain his 20-plus goal form? Is Koskinen the real deal? Can Nugent-Hopkins continue to make gains after putting up career highs with 28 goals and 41 assists for 69 points in 2018-19?

Can the Oilers outperform teams that appear to be better than them in the West to squeeze into the playoffs?

That’s a tall task, especially just three months into Holland’s tenure.

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